January in Belgium (Les pecheurs des perles@Gent, Faust@Liège, Gioconda@De Munt/La Monnaie)

I saw two very nice productions last month, one in Gent and one in Liège. Although I am not fond, for different reasons, of either Bizet’s Les pecheurs des perles or Gounod’s Faust, both were very satisfying in terms of singers, conductors and directors and resulted eventually in very pleasing opera evenings.

Les pecheurs des perles was told in a sort of flashback: from an elderly home, Zurga and Nadir re-live the past and their love for Leila. The past is then visualized by a huge sea wave and three dancers. The stage rotated regularly from present to past and in some occasions the two merged, such as when the dancers representing Nadir and Leila, were actually cuddling on a table in the elderly home, surrounded by the seagulls. A very lovely and touching moment of magic realism. From all the voices it was Elena Tsallagova’s Leila who stood out while David Reiland delivered a direction underlining the languish aspect of the score throughout the opera, which was played without pause (a habit I support).

Liège showed us a production of Faust by Stefano Poda already performed in Turin. It’s a symbolic and philosophical vision. The stage is dominated by a giant ring, which turns and lifts and around which everybody moves. The effect is stunning, the idea brilliant, the content and position of the ring vary along the acts and it allows movement of singers and masses. The visual and light effects are beautiful and underline each scene efficiently,  the costumes are very nice and adequate and the Walpurgis ballet was beautifully choreographed. Patrick Davin directs with beautiful colours a score that I find far to “nice” for the subject. The cast was very good with a wonderful interpretation and a generous voice by Ildebrando d’Arcangelo as Mephisto and a good Faust by Marc Laho. Anne Catherine Gillet, except for a few pushed high notes in act 5, charms with a beautiful fleshy timbre.

I saw a less convincing Gioconda, too. “Py Makes it a sinister tale”, they wrote about the director,  or…”chooses for…black“. I’m not sure, however, the intentional choice is much in Py’s power. There are recurring themes and objects such as the all-black, the dog masks, the feeling of grim and oppressive. Sometimes this works well-where Py is indeed able to add more than a setting (Les Huguenots were excellent, Les dialogues des Carmelites impressive)-sometimes it doesn’t (Hamlet or this Gioconda). The continuous black was a bit monotonous, then nudity became a recurrent contrivance and trash came into the picture (having sex on a table, while holding a frying pan with a fish in it?) plus a group rape during the dance scene (ok we got it: sex and violence is a constant in this Py-world, wherever it is). I was bored halfway through the first part. Vocally the two casts weren’t exciting either. None of the two Gioconda’s were fully convincing, one because of the colourless interpretation, the other due a certain distance to the character. Of the two Laura’s I liked the warm voice of Szilvia Vörös in the second cast. Really credible were the Enzo and Barnaba of Stefano La Colla and France Vassallo. The latter vocally and scenically also very convincing. Carignani’s direction is dry and nervous with no space for sentimentality. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. Overall two unsatisfactory evenings.

Les pecheurs de perles, Dirigent-David Reiland, Concept, regie & scenografie-FC Bergman, Regie-Stef Aerts, Marie Vinck-Thomas Verstraeten, Decor en belichting-Thomas Verstraeten, Joé Ageman, Kostuums-Judith Van Herck, Dramaturgie-Luc Joosten, Leïla-Elena Tsallagova, Nadir-Charles Workman, Zurga-Boris Statsenko, Nourabad-Stanislav Vorobyov. 15/01/19, photo-Annemie Augustijns

Faust, Conductor-Patrick Davin, Director, Set Design, Costume Design, Lighting, Choreography -Stefano Poda, Faust-Marc Laho, Marguerite-Anne-Catherine Gillet, Méphistophélès-Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Valentin-Lionel Lhote, Siebel-Na’ama Goldman, Dame Marthe-Angélique Noldus, Wagner-Kamil Ben Hsaïn Lachiri, 30/01/19, photo Edoardo Piva Ramella&Giannese

La Gioconda, Muzikale Leiding-Paolo Carignani, Regie-Olivier Py, Decor En Kostuums-Pierre-André Weitz, Belichting-Bertrand Killy, , La Gioconda- Béatrice Uria-Monzon /Hui He, Laura Adorno-Szilvia Vörös/Silvia Tro Santafé, Enzo Grimaldo-Andrea Carè/Stefano La Colla, Barnaba-Franco Vassallo/Scott Hendricks, La Cieca-Ning Liang, Alvise Badoero-Jean Teitgen, Isèpo-Roberto Covatta, Zuane / Un pilot-Bertrand Duby, Un Barnabotto/Una Voce-Bernard Giovani, Un Cantore-René Laryea, Una Voce-Alejandro Fonté, 30/01 and 01/02/19. Pictures from http://www.Lamonnaie.be

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Une folie organisée o Guillaume Tell, L’occasione fa il ladro and L’italiana in Algeri at the Rossini Opera Festival 2013

imagesThe ROF or Rossini Opera Festival: The yearly festival dedicated to the opera’s of that tornado that revolutionized the musical world in 1810-1820. Pesaro is a small and pretty town on sunny adriatic, one eats well, enjoys the sea, in the evening one saunters well dressed in the centro storico or along the lungomare. There is also much music to be enjoyed and the happenings are semi-chique considering that one can sip Prosecco next to Alfred Brendel, be seated in a box next to Raina Kabaivanska or ask Patsy (aka Joanna Lumley) to light one’s sigarette during the break.
The 3 opera’s of the ROF 2013 are Guillaume Tell, L’occasione fa il ladro and L’italiana in Algeri.

tellThis year’s big attraction was meant to be Guillaume Tell. “Un’opera strana” was a comment from two well-read opera aficionado’s behind me. And one of the first Grand operà’s is indeed a little strange, with strikes of genius but also with long choral passages and little action. One can try to explain this with a mediocre libretto, or Rossini’s difficulty to adapt to the French style. The opera is undeniably quite long and includes the women’s terzetto in Act 4 and Jemmy’s aria in act 3, two often cut pieces.
Much has been written and discussed about Florez’s interpretation of Arnold, as the role is long and difficult, and his vocality does not seem fit for this heavier role. But he gets through the role and the first 3 acts without major problems. He sings a very moving Asile hereditaire in Act 4 but a mechanical Amis, amis in a discrete French. Big personal success and much applause of course, but Florez is an absolute star in Pesaro. I felt that Marina Rebeka’s voice was less controlled than in Amsterdam a couple of months back, with slightly screamed high notes and less precise coloratura (Mariotti’s tempi did not help) but she sang with a strong and steady voice. Like in Amsterdam, I did not like Nicola Alaimo as Tell, his stage presence and voice were not important enough to interpret the Swiss hero, neither in the heroic, nor in the more lyrical moments. In this Guillaume Tell, Jemmy’s aria, which is often cut, is re-introduced, but the game isn’t worth the candle neither for the piece on its own nor for the interpreter. Amanda Forsythe, whom I vividly remember as a spirited and sparkling Rosalia in L’equivoco stravagante in 2008 (Pesaro) sings well and with a good stage presence but with little voice and reducing the aria to a coloratura showpiece. The other singers were adequately cast although some of them had an execrable pronunciation.
tell5The musical director Michele Mariotti starts with a well directed Ouverture, playing with well placed rubati, but as already said, the opera is long and needs a director who is able to keep the suspense down to the wire. Although undeniably a good director, Mariotti had some odd choices of tempi and was not able to span the musical arch to the end.
Graham Vick’s direction is all based on socialist symbolism and a repeated display of the Habsburgs’ violence and humiliation over the Swiss. It’s a bit repetitive at times but it does not necessarily disturb the action. It is in fact quite conventional, occasionally even trivial (the stairs at the end; the soppy movie of Arnold’s father…) but the ballabili were very moving and well danced, although part of the public did not appreciate them, booing the dancers (shouldn’t they boo the director instead??). All in all, nothing to get overly excited or overly disappointed about. Just a bit too much.

occasione160813_640xL’occasione fa il ladro: One of the loveliest of the farse written for the Venetian teatro San Moisé, if you ask me. It is clear from the music Rossini forges for this short opera (eg the elaborate aria for Berenice and intricate second finale, which comprises several different musical structures) that the short form of farsa (a comic opera usually in one act, originating in Venice or Naples) was too tight to Rossini’s musical fecundity and inventiveness.
The production is the one Jean-Pierre Ponnelle created for Pesaro in 1987. It is based on simple and traditional acting with painted scenes and few props. The group of singers reunited is a mix of young newcomers like Enea Scala and Victoria Yarovaya, and more recurrent ROF singers like Roberto de Candia and Paolo Bordogna. The cast is good although one could pick about the insufficient coloratura di forza of one, the strained voice in the higher register of the other, the slight backwards voice of a third or the somewhat stiffness in acting of a fourth. But the group effort made it a very enjoyable musical evening.
occsI would like to mention Elena Tsallagova in the role of Berenice. She sang the loveliest Arpa gentil I ever heard life, in the 2011 Viaggio a Reims production in Pesaro (the yearly performance given after the seminar dedicated to interpretation of Rossini’s music). Unfortunately she made a bad choice with Contessa di Folleville of the same opera in Ghent in 2012. With her Berenice I found again the beautiful and pure voice I heard in 2011. Her coloratura can be impeccable if she finds a director who gives her the time to deploy it properly. Given a wise selection of adequate roles (belcanto, mostly, I hope) I wish Ms Tsallagova a very fruitful career.
The (female) musical director was Yi-Chen Lin, who directed with precision and supported the singers .

The third opera was L’Italiana in Algeri, which Rossini, already a small celebrity now, after the successes of Tancredi and La pietra del paragone composed for the Venetian Teatro San Benedetto in May 1813.
italiana150813_640xAlex esposito as Mustafà sings with impeccable pronunciation and nice, fullbodied voice. Which is a bit short in the deeper register but this does not lessen the overall respectable performance which he sings with precise enough coloratura in the florid passages. Mario Cassi as Taddeo and Mariangela Sicilia as Elvira sang admirable and Davide Luciano (as always accompanied by his good friend the eunuch…) gave a good interpretation of his aria, which btw, was not composed by Rossini but by an unknown collaborator. Yijie Shi does not have Florez’s smooth voice but he is a fine singer and comes across the difficult part of Lindoro quite well. The Isabella of Goryachova, on the other hand, was a questionable point. Clearly at ease with the coloratura, with a velvety voice, she is, however, a clear mezzosoprano, which makes it easy for her to fling to the higher, but gives her some trouble in the lower notes, which are barely audible (I had the same impressions when she sang Matilde di Shabran‘s Edoardo in Pesaro last year). Why she keeps singing contralto roles is unclear to me, which, if satisfactory when heard on radio, is unacceptable in a theatre, as her voice does not expand or spread well (She was a nice, velvet-voice Zerlina in Zurich, though)
Unfortunately the musical direction of this Italiana was given to José Ramon Encinar who directs in an unimaginative, lifeless, tedious and vigor-less manner. Never have i heard the Comunale di Bologna play so mechanically and with so little energy.
Where this Italiana scores brilliantly, in my opinion, is the 60’s-inspired direction by the always inventive Davide Livermore. It is quite difficult to list all the actions that are happening on stage. But Livermore’s interpretation is probably encouraged by the nonsense-inspired libretto (din-din, bum bum, pappataci etc); What we see on stage is a constant movement, a flow of people and animation, a non-stop of gags, a sophisticated machinery who brings us from Rome to Algiers, which shows us a plane crash on stage and an aquarium with a shark. From this point of view the singers were also fantastic actors, Alex Esposito jumps, dances, hops and leaps with astonishing energy, Goryachova showed us an enviable figure as the seducing Italian lady, and the innumerable variety of supporting characters like tourists, stewardesses and housemaids fill the stage with action; What I liked most is the dancing on stage, especially during the concertati and the strette, which accentuates so well Rossini’s musical sparkle and energy. Too much? De gustibus…

Guillaume Tell: Direttore-Michele Mariotti, Regia-Graham Vick, Scene e costumi-Paul Brown, Coreografie-Ron Howell, Progetto luci-Giuseppe di Iorio, Guillaume Tell- Nicola Alaima, Arnold Melchtal-Juan Diego Florez, Walter Furst-Simon Orfila, Melchtal-Simone Alberghini, Jemmy-Amanda Forsythe, Gesler-Luca Tittoto, Rodolphe-Alessandro Luciano, Ruodi Pêcheur-Celso Albelo, Leuthold / Un Chasseur-Wojtek Gierlach, Mathilde-Marina Rebeka, Hedwige-Veronica Simenoni, 20 august 2013

L’occasione fa il ladro: Direttore-Yi-Chen Lin, Regia, scene e costumi-Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Ripresa della regia-Sonja Frisell, Don Eusebio-Giorgio Misseri, Berenice-Elena Tsallagova, Conte Alberto-Enea Scala, Don Parmenione-Roberto de Candia, Ernestina-Viktoria Yarovaya, Martino-Paolo Bordogna, 21 august 2013

L’italiana in Algeri: Direttore-José Ramon Encinar, Regia-Davide Livermore, Scene e Progetto luci-Nicolas Bovey, Costumi-Gianluca Falaschi, Mustafà Alex Esposito, Elvira-Mariangela Sicilia, Zulma-Raffaella Lupinacci, Haly-Davide Luciano, Lindoro-Yijie Shi, Isabella-Anna Goryachova, Taddeo-Mario Cassi, 22 august 2013; Pictures from http://www.rossinioperafestival.it/